Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Watchmen: A Fine Mess (With spoilers)

I’ll have to admit to being excited about the Watchmen release because the previews looked so promising. Having seen the movie this Wednesday I’d call it a fine mess. Why? The movie features distinctive characters, stunning visual effects, and an innovative narrative flow. And it was based on an interesting idea: what if Richard Nixon had been re-elected five times and still was President in 1985? In this alternate history line a group of heroes called the Watchmen help the government maintain order and even with its military activities. I haven’t read the graphic novel upon which the movie is based but I gather that the movie closely follows the novel.

Without going into the details of the plot my biggest problem with Watchmen is it's philosophical premise. Basically it's "sacrifice a few to save many." In other words, utilitarianism. In the movie two of the "heroes" are sacrificed. In addition several large US cities are blown up in order to scare the US and USSR into pursuing peace. (The movie was set in an alternate 1985 in which Nixon is still President.) So millions are sacrificed to save billions. I guess this is what passes for “deep” thinking these days: how many people will be sacrificed to preserve the peace, not what it takes to ensure the freedom of individuals.

This approach is typical for collectivists. They talk a lot about saving humanity but little about individual humans. It also inverts conceptual relationships. In the movie peace becomes and end in itself and trumps the freedom (and lives) of individuals. People are used as cannon fodder in search of a “greater good.” As a result people are freely sacrificed to achieve this end. A philosophy that centers on the individual instead will put peace second if achieving this peace means threatening the freedom of citizens.

In addition to using an alternate history to set up the plot it seems the writer buys the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) theory posed by former Secretary of the Defense Robert McNamara. The problem is that the Soviets never bought into MAD. They thought they could win and survive a nuclear war. And, their goal wasn't peace but to eradicate "evil" capitalism. This reveals another flaw in the premise behind MAD and the movie. Searching for a truly peaceful solution assumes both sides share common values. What common values did we share with the Soviet Union? Our system, for all its faults, is based on the premise that the function of government is to protect the interests of the individuals. Communism on the other hand forces individuals to serve the government or the “greater good.” (By the way, exactly who defines what this greater good consists of?) The record for collectivist governments in the 20th century shows the futility of this approach: tens of millions of people died or were murdered yet the lives of the survivors were incredibly impoverished when compared to those living in freer countries.

This just goes to show that we all have to be “watchmen” against bad premises.

No comments: